Sydney Pollack has directed some of the best-loved movies of the past 20 years - "Tootsie," "Out of Africa," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Way We Were," "Absence of Malice" and "The Electric Horseman" among them.

His latest is "Havana," starring his friend Robert Redford - their seventh collaboration as director and star, respectively. "Havana" premiered Tuesday evening at the Capitol Theater as a benefit for Redford's Sundance Institute, with both Redford and Pollack in attendance. (The film opens nationwide Friday.)The story of a seedy gambler who is changed by love, "Havana" offers Redford a change-of-pace role - and it's Pollack's first action behind the camera since "Out of Africa" in 1985. He says he doesn't want to lay off that long again.

"Oh, I gotta go back to work," Pollack said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles office. "I took my three years, got the company set up - it's time to get back to work."

"The company" is Mirage, a production company he began after winning the best director Oscar for "Out of Africa," which he devotes to producing the kinds of movies he likes - movies about people, such as "Presumed Innocent," "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "White Palace."

But while developing those films he was itching to get back to directing. "Havana" is a project he's been working on in one form or another for quite awhile.

"It was a script that I first came in contact with in the middle '70s - an idea. I didn't pursue it at that time, although I worked with Judith Rascoe (co-writer of `Havana') for a couple of months on it. But neither of us felt we had licked the script.

"I put it away and did other things, but I was haunted by those characters. They reminded me of films I'd seen in the '40s and '50s. There was a romanticism about the story I liked."

Pollack said he tried to get permission to shoot the film in Havana but was turned down by the State Department. "Cuba is officially listed as an enemy with this country, and so by law no one is not allowed to trade with Cuba.

"I went on a long trip and I looked everywhere," eventually settling on the Dominican Republic as a substitute shooting site.

He said Redford wasn't his initial choice for the gambler he plays in the movie but eventually became the most intriguing. "In the '80s he was my first choice, but in the early '70s several people came to mind. The character is this sort of down-and-out gambler who is down on his luck, and he's going to pursue and lose the woman. He wasn't the obvious first choice for it, but then later on I began to get really intrigued with the possibility of Bob in that role.

"You have to go back to things like `Little Fauss and Big Halsy,' `Jeremiah Johnson,' things like that, things away from the straightforward romantic roles.

"I've always believed Bob is a character actor at heart. But it's been a while since he's done anything like this. I think this is his best work. He reached deeper, he's more touching, there's a kind of soulfulness in this performance I think is very impressive."

He also talked about Redford's infamous tardiness, recently blown up in a Vanity Fair story. "If anything, he made a greater effort to be punctual than any of the others. Bob has a reputation for being late, and he's not the promptest person in the world. But it gets exaggerated. I've made seven films with him, and I tend to be there five minutes early while he tends to be there five minutes late. It's just the difference in our personalities.

"I think he was upset because he felt he made a real effort on `Havana' to dispel the rumors about tardiness, but I think he does feel that he has been a journalistic target. That's one of the reasons he's kept out of the limelight. He feels that every time he does sit still for interviews for the press he's in a no-win situation. Compliments aren't really a journalistic angle. I don't get nervous talking about my films, but if I'm the subject, it's hard. Who's going to read a boring piece that's complimentary?

"With Bob there's a real blood lust. He's been on top for such a long time and stayed out of the limelight, stayed out of the columns, you don't see him at parties, he's not part of the establishment - there's an aloofness I think he does for survival."

Those who see "Havana" may wonder why an actor as prominent as Raul Julia isn't listed in the credits, but Pollack says that's not unusual. "Jack Nicholson in `Broadcast News,' Bill Murray in `Tootsie' - usually that happens when you have an actor who's achieved a certain stature and he's playing a part that's really more of a cameo, and you can't find the proper billing. The best billing after Redford and Olin had already been given to Alan Arkin because he's got the next largest part."

Pollack said Arkin plays a role that's rather different for him. "He's wonderful in this as a real cynical doer, a wry Mafia guy who runs a casino and works for (gangster) Meyer Lansky. He's a very dry, acerbic character."

And Pollack said he was very pleased with Lena Olin in the romantic female lead opposite Redford. "I had some very specific problems here. Redford is the pursuer in this picture, as opposed to what he's often played. He's also rejected and he loses, although it's a story about his character's redemption. He has to play a man who comes in contact with a woman of substance for the first time in his life.

"We had to have a woman who is impressive in those terms. The woman's husband is murdered and we have to believe the gravity of her mourning. There was something about her presence when I saw `The Unbearable Lightness of Being' - I hadn't yet seen `Enemies - A Love Story' - and then I met her and knew."